Baby boomers are disappointed in their children. The younger generation whines too much, feels entitled to success, and lacks the responsibility of their parents, we hear. This is not anecdotal. A Pew Social Trends survey reports, "about two-thirds or more of the public believes that, compared with the younger generation, older Americans have better moral values, have a better work ethic and are more respectful of others."
Of course, Baby boomers' parents held their kids in equal contempt. Tom Brokaw's book The Greatest Generation tells a story of baby boomers' parents disappointed in their childrens' lack of values and work ethic. "The morals have changed tremendously," lamented one. Another's "only regret is that the lessons of his generation" weren't passed onto his kids. "The idea of personal responsibility is such a defining characteristic of the World War II generation,' Brokaw wrote, "that when the rules changed later, these men and women were appalled."
Decades before, the greatest generation was criticized by their elders, too. Woodrow Wilson, who grew up on horseback, said widespread use of the car promoted "the arrogance of wealth." The younger generation was criticized for abandoning church, dressing provocatively, and leaving the rigors of farm labor for the ease of factory machines. Modern times stole their grit, as Fortune magazine wrote in 1936:
The present-day college generation is fatalistic. It will not stick its neck out. It keeps its pants buttoned, its chin up, and its mouth shut. If we take the mean average to be the truth, it is a cautious, subdued, unadventurous generation.
This goes on and on, a ritual dating back as far as anyone looks. It's a time-honored tradition to be disappointed in the younger generation.
Here's one explanation: Things get better over time. As you see younger generations bypassing problems you yourself dealt with, you become resentful. People can appear lazy when they don't have to suffer as much as you did. This comes through as disappointment in younger generations who don't seem to care about the same threats and worries their elders did.
The blog The School of Life calls this Future Envy.
It takes an extreme example. Imagine traveling to 14th century Europe and confronting a mother whose child just died of Scarlet fever. How would that mother feel if you told her that in the future her child could be cured with antibiotics costing just two bucks? Would she be impressed? Unlikely. She'd feel unlucky, anguished that her child died only because she lived in the wrong period of history while future generations breezed past infection like it was nothing.
It imagines other conversations you might have with your 14th century counterparts:
Imagine describing Heathrow Airport and the Boeing Dreamliner to a man who had starved, suffered seasickness, and been taken prisoner on a three-year pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Imagine telling a guy with a toothache about the anesthetic which he wouldn't be able to get for another 623 years. Imagine telling [a mathematician] who spent his whole life doing vastly complicated calculations that one day his sums would be doable with a small plastic [calculator] picked up next to the express checkout at the supermarket.
These people's astonishment would soon turn to resentment, upset at their bad luck of living in the wrong point of history. This explains why the most common complaint about younger generations is their lack of hard work. Your grandparents may have had to walk five miles in the snow to get to school. The fact that you get to do it in a heated SUV makes them feel unlucky. This seems rational; It can be painful to imagine all the things you missed out on just because you're too old. Here's The School of Life again:
Instead of seeming inevitable, our miseries can come to appear like cruel, temporary accidents. We realize that in the broad span of history, people don't have to suffer many of the things we're going through. We just happen to be condemned to them because we've been born at the wrong time.
Even if you care about future generations, progress that doesn't make your life better can look like unfair pampering. It's the same reason subsidies are claimed to promote growth by those who receive them, but promote dependency by those who don't.
The School of Life ties this all together:
We can identify a new kind of comparative poverty that we're suffering from: When a person is poor not in relation to what others around them have now, but poor in relation to what people will have at some point in a dimly imaginable, more-advanced, and more intelligent future.
The important thing is to realize that every generation has this problem, not just your own. In due time millennials will knock the laziness and lack of ambition of their own children. In the future, my two-month old son will nap in a self-driving car. I'll consider his generation lazy while recalling the whiplash of learning to drive a stick and the frustration of getting lost in the city. Same as it ever was.
Contact Morgan Housel at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.